Introduction to Course
A. To Work and to Guard
1. From Genesis 2:15, we see that Adam is placed in the Garden to work it and guard it. What does that mean? For us, while this has physical dimensions, it is principally spiritual and ethical. In the Garden, sages see the rain as Torah study and seeds are the performance of the mitzvoth (Bava Kamma 17a). These produce life-giving crops.
2. Hosea 10:12. When one righteously and kindly uses resources to help others, one reaps benefits in the form of gratitude and growth as a better person. This growth is seen as well as having an effect in the heavens just as corruption has an infecting impact beyond oneself.
3. The commandments that we perform, God plants in His heaven. (Midrash Shocher Tov 114).
4. Another sage sees God as planting the seed but its success or failure is dependent on man. A seed can, with proper care, become a great tree, in Eden or in the garden of each and every one of us, in our physical and spiritual lives. It’s ours to work and guard.
5. This spiritual mission carries over to mankind, to us, undiminished by exile and not changed by human shortcomings. So, this idea of understanding God’s expectations and living true to them is the working and guarding we do in our lives, in the time and space of our lives.
B. Mankind and the Mitzvoth
1. Fundamental notion - the body is not the essence of a human being. It covers the inner substance - the spiritual self, the soul. It has been taught that the Torah was given to human beings to meet their broad human needs, but with a particular emphasis on the needs of their souls. The scientific details may be off, but the concept fits the idea that the Torah contains positive mitzvoth that would correspond to the 248 body parts and 365 prohibitions that would correspond to the sinews and blood vessels that connect the body parts and help them function. This adds up, of course, to 613.
2. Now, I don’t want to press this point too much, but I do want to stress the idea that the mitzvoth work through our bodies, our bodies, in service of our souls, that when we live by them we elevate ourselves.
3. We’ve talked a great deal about the Bible’s concern about sin. Needless to say, the mitzvoth have a lot to do with arming us to avoid and, when needed, deal with treating and getting past sin. It’s believed that sin causes holiness to ooze out of us, robbing us of soul, even, unless checked, causing spiritual death. Living as God expects, it is thought, strengthens/nourishes the soul, protects holiness.
4. These mitzvoth are all about both faith AND action. They’re ways of living in the world. As we’ve discussed, there is no faith/works dichotomy in the Hebrew Bible. Our faith is grounded in the principle that the God in Whom we have faith expects us to live in the world in His ways. In certain instances, as we have discussed, these expectations inform us to act by abstaining from action. In others, we are informed to take action. Thus, the negative and the positive, mitzvoth.
5. As we discussed with body/clothes/soul, the mitzvoth have surface characteristics as well as deeper, “Heavenly” components. Since many Jews and virtually all Christians either do not follow or have different views about following the surface intentions of many of the mitzvoth, we’ll be on the constant lookout for the deeper meaning.
6. Without question, the traditional view among Jews, and really Christians, too, is that these were given as a prescription for Jews. I don’t really want to fight that view. But I have this hypothesis: I believe there is a deeper meaning in these Godly expectations that represent a guide for living a good life, with value to all people, especially believers in God. This is why I am focused so on this study, why I am delighted to study it with you, and why I am especially pleased that you’ve created space for this study during the year.
C. Heaven and Earth
1. In our lives, we are concerned about that which is “beneath the sun” and “above the sun.”
2. Note the number of prohibitions equals 365. Much has been made of the fact that this corresponds to the number of days in a year. One lesson that is drawn from this fact is that one must be vigilant to God’s word each day, vigilant to avoid straying from the path and the decline that involves. We must remember temptation never rests, nor must our duty to avoid it, to stay true.
3. Yet, we also have the capacity to advance. We not only resist temptation; we rush to serve positively in ways pleasing to God. We do this out of love and, it is taught, we grow by doing so.
4. This service to God involves, thus, both duty/obedience and love. And, as mentioned already, is a mission that is a matter with a Heavenly purpose.
5. No one is perfect. No one lives according to all these mitzvoth or any other prescribed ways of life. But I do think God has expectations of us, as to how we live, in faith and action, and that we should try with all our might, heart, and soul to live in sync with those expectations.
I do believe in the World to Come, and I do believe that my living in faith in ways that are pleasing to God is expected in this world, as a part of reaching my place in the next. God wants His human partner, in earthly life, to work, to guard, to grow, to love God and others, and to make this world a better place while here. Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen taught beautifully and rather lyrically that when the soul of such a person, a person who has served God in life, escapes at death, its exit was as smooth and simple as removing a hair from milk, without impediment.
This is fundamentally close to classic Jewish belief, though there’s no clear, accepted doctrine today, however much teachers of doctrine in days past might have hoped there to be.
D. In All Phases of Life
1.The mitzvoth are so broad and numerous they appear to cover much of life. This is purposeful, mainly in leading to think all the time that our lives should be in service to God. Maimonides: the mitzvoth are “devices given from afar by the Great Counselor in order to perfect perspectives and properly align all deeds.”
2. As we have studied before, they help us be truly free and avoid the urge to be dominated by animal passions, desire for wealth and excessive power, and longing for glory.
E. Even When “Not Applicable” on the Surface Level
1. Technically, there are mitzvoth that do not apply to all, often because they directly apply only in the land of Israel or in the operation of the Temple, which obviously no longer is standing, or only to certain specific people. It is my view, which has support in the tradition, that one should study them all and fulfill them to the best extent one can. We may take some liberty here in that at the deepest level we’ll see ways of fulfilling mitzvoth that actually on the surface can only be studied and not be done, or truly are limited in their application.
2. At least, this has been the hypothesis of our prior study. Now let’s see in this more concentrated study how it works out.
F. Is It Really 613? Where Does This Come From?
1. There are numerous works throughout time on the mitzvoth. And there are, as you might imagine, many differences on how to identify and count the mitzvoth in the Bible. This study of ours won’t go into all that. The most significant work on this over the centuries has been the Sefer HaMitzvot by the great medieval sage, Maimonides. We will use that book as the basis of our study, and I’ll bring in others’ thoughts on occasion to enrich our deliberations. In particular, I will bring to bear the thoughts of this mysterious fellow Chinuch, perhaps a disciple in Spain of the great sage, Nahmanides, who endeavored to compile and comment on the views of major sages on the mitzvoth in a book called The Book of the Mitzvoth. His stated purpose was to provide a guide to the youth in how to live as God has taught us to live. This book is now being published serially over several years by the magnificent Jewish publisher, Artscroll, in a truly beautiful set, editions of which I will often have with me. See more about these two references at the bottom of this page.
2. We’ll rely on these sages over the centuries, but we’ll also draw heavily on our own knowledge, including especially our work last year in our study of Torah, the source generally of these mitzvoth, our wisdom, and experience.
Sandy mentions two references that he will be using throughout this study. Several of you have asked for the names of those references. The names are actually given above on this page of notes. For an expansion of what those references are (from Wikipedia) click on the links below: